Sweet Sixteen and The Dark Road
While turning sixteen is a big deal to most teenagers, it’s an especially crucial age for Ridley and Lena, the two teenage witches in Richard LaGravanese’s Beautiful Creatures, who must decide whether they will become good or evil sorceress’ (or “casters” as they’re described in the story). For Emmy Rossum (Mystic River, The Day After Tomorrow, The Phantom of the Opera), who plays Ridley, it was clear that her character was always going to become a dark witch. But this twist of fate turned her against her cousin, Alice, and Ridley is determined to win her back. Rossum – currently best known for her role on the Showtime dramedy Shameless – talks about stepping into a supernatural world teeming with all the usual teenage angst.
In Beautiful Creatures, when Ridley and Lena turn sixteen, they must decide whether to be good or bad. Were you making such decisions at that age?
I was just an annoyingly goody-two-shoes, but I desperately wanted to be bad. That was it in a nutshell. I was going through a goth stage, which basically entailed wearing all black and reading Wicca books. I thought that was cool. The only time I ever cheated on a test was when I was going to summer school at the Brentwood School in Los Angeles. I tried to cheat on a pop quiz in science by writing all the key facts on my hand. That was a novel concept! So I aced the test and the class continued. The teacher asked a question and I knew the answer and raised my hand like the goody-two-shoes I was. And the teacher was like, ‘What is that on your hand?’ I completely froze and had a meltdown. So much for being a bad girl.
Did you know anyone like Ridley in high school?
Yes, I had to deal with my own Ridleys at school. I grew up and have the career that I want, and now they can suck it. I wasn’t cool when I was at school. I had short, dark, frizzy hair, and they were all really skinny and beautiful and blonde. They had perfect families, and I was that kid from a broken home with the single mom. And I was the weird girl who sang at the opera and didn’t sing in English; they just thought I was such a freak. It's not like I had no friends or that I was bullied because of it to the extent that bullying exists now, but people don't like people who are different. It was hurtful but I just kept doing what I wanted to do. When you’re a kid, you want to fit in and I thought about trying to suppress who I was and hide the stuff that I liked, but then I just thought, ‘Well, why do I want to be like everybody else?’ That's a theme of this movie.
Were you attracted to bad boys?
Well, everybody loves a bad boy. But not me. I’m a geek. Smart and nerdy, every time.
So when you get a character like this, with evil ingrained in her soul, is it a refreshing challenge to play her?
I loved playing a character who is not living within the realm of reality, who has power, and who’s a lot of fun and a little evil. It was a fun challenge to play someone as bad as Ridley because I had to find an explanation for why she is that way. For me, the evil and malice comes from a place of deep-rooted insecurity. In the book it’s unclear, but in the movie there's a flashback and you see the girl that she was before. I imagine that the insecurity that she had was due to her being the less favoured girl in the family; compared to her cousin Lena, Ridley always was just second best. So she hungered for power, to not be second best. When Ridley was chosen for the Dark when she was 16, all of a sudden she had this immense power and she really pushes it way too far.
Talk about all the costumes Ridley wears that reveal her character. Was that a fun part of playing her?
Honestly, most of the work for that character was figuring out all the different looks and different personas that went with each different look. It was fun. After reading the books, I kind of imagined Gwen Stefani’s Harjuku Girls, a plaid skirt and push-up-bra kind of a look. But when I arrived in New Orleans to do the film, I discovered that the director Richard LaGravenese and our costume designer Jeffery Kurland had envisioned a very couture, retro-Hollywood look. It blew my mind. It was exciting to see the character in a different way than I’d imagined while reading the books – she was much more sophisticated and alluring, and that was more in tune with her being a siren. At the first costume fitting, they showed me this piece of black lace, and said, ‘This is your costume’. I said, ‘This is it? Where’s the rest of it?’ I put it on and saw that it was tiny but had carefully positioned sequins to hide my personal bits.
You’ve probably created a new Halloween character as well.
Considering the fact that Halloween costumes have become just an excuse for girls to dress up in no clothes, I think you’re right. But once I had gotten over the shock of the initial fitting, I really embraced the idea that in-your-face costumes went with Ridley. There I was walking through woods and fields, and my Christian Louboutins were sinking into the grass! I had to make it look like it was quite effortless, but it was really a pain in the butt! The costumes actually helped my performance. Because they were so over-the-top, I realised I had to push up the acting, and then I could take my characterisation of Ridley a lot further than I’d thought. I got to push the character really far. Everything got a lot bigger.
You’re a blonde in the movie…
Ridley's hair is blonde for pretty much no reason. We thought originally that we would just use my own hair but then we wigged every single look. Wearing the blond wig made me feel softer, more delicate, more feminine. I definitely felt stronger and more New York as a brunette. More myself. I liked being a redhead most, actually, and I liked having short hair for the first time since I was a kid.
What’s the deal with the lollipop? Is it like a wand?
The lollipop features more heavily in the book. It’s just kind of her Lolita seduction quality. We changed it in the movie so she’s only featured with the lollipop in one scene and in all other scenes there’s some other kind of sweet food that she’s eating, to show her as a consumer of food and sex and men and all that stuff. She consumes pears and plums and cookies and cakes, anything sweet. Cherries were kind of my tip of the hat to Witches of Eastwick, because I love that movie.
In regard to the good-and-evil theme and a young girl trying to elude "evil," did you relate this story with The Phantom of the Opera in some way?
Not really. But there are definitely similarities that can be drawn in regard to the universal themes of bad and good, the dark and light that is within all of us, and our choosing what kind of person we want to be. In this family, at least for the women of the Duchannes bloodline, you can’t choose. And because Lena’s a natural, she’s more powerful, and the evil forces worry that she might be able to control and suppress the dark. So Ridley’s evil aunt, Lena’s dead mother, played by Emma Thompson, sends Ridley to make sure that Lena goes to the dark. She's a bit like a henchman.
In the second part of our interview with young actress, Emmy Rossum, we dig into the psychology and motivations behind Ridley, the seductive dark teen witch in ‘Beautiful Creatures.’What preparation did you do for the role of Ridley?
Because I’m such an audio person and I started in music when I was a kid, I had to figure out what my character should sound like, how she should talk, how she should phrase things. So I had to find the right accent, a kind of honey-soaked Southern Gothic sound, and make sure that Emma Thompson and I sounded kind of the same. We worked a lot on that with our dialect coach. Also, so that Ridley would be the physical embodiment of sensuality, I spent time in a lot of bars in New Orleans, drinking and infusing myself with that Southern sensibility – research is rough!
Did it take a while to get Ridley out of your system after you played her?
I would love to play Ridley in all the sequels, but the second they said ‘That’s a wrap on Emmy Rossum’, I got into the car to the airport and bit off the fake nails and was like, ‘Ahhh, we’re done!’ And I started shooting Shameless the next day, with a total mental flip into Fiona.
You said you read the other books as well. To understand Ridley better, did you have to read about what happens to her in the future to understand her for the first film?
I wanted to see her trajectory and to see where she went in the other books. She’s in the second book a little bit more and I could start to understand her temperament better. I picked up on character traits in all the different books and brought that to the first film.
Since Ridley went Dark, does she miss being close to Lena?
Yes. She doesn’t have any sisters, so Lena’s like a sister to her, and she wants them to be together. Ridley has a heart underneath it all and is capable of love. She loves Lena.
One of the problems I had with the first book of the series is that it doesn't seem that Lena, after Ridley went Dark, cared about her very much. Lena’s not asking, ‘How do we get Ridley back?’ There’s no effort on Lena’s part. Meanwhile, as you say, Ridley misses Lena.
I think the girls do have a distinct bond. They grew up together, they travelled around together. When Ridley went Dark, she went away, obviously to protect Lena, so that she wouldn’t hurt her. I think that love and understanding is there between the two girls, but now Ridley has had enough alone time, and so she has returned to her cousin.
So in the movie, as opposed to the book, there is that bond. Does Lena have it too?
Yes. Lena wants to trust Ridley. Lena wants to believe that underneath it all, Ridley still has a shred of goodness in her.
And the other person who sees that is Link, Ethan’s best friend.
Right. I think Link gets to her a little bit. She definitely feels affection for him. He’s funny, he idolises her in a way that’s so seductive to her. She likes how he makes her feel about herself. He’s younger and puts her on this goddess pedestal, and she doesn’t want to hurt him. But she doesn’t want to hurt him less than she wants Lena back. So she does what it takes no matter who gets hurt. But I think her overall objective is to get Lena back, and that’s at the expense of anything else.
But it’s to get Lena back by making her Dark.
But I do believe, as Sarafine has told Ridley, Lena will go Dark no matter what. She’s not powerful enough to overcome that.
The family all comes together as Lena is about to turn 16 and go Dark. When Ridley went Dark, do you think people cared as much?
No, and I think that makes Ridley really angry. I think that’s why she wants her family back. She wants them to love her. There’s a love/hate thing going on between her and the rest of her family.
Richard LaGravense told me that he made Ridley worse in the movie, that she actually kills someone. He added that. From your standpoint, where you want to feel affection for Ridley, isn’t that going in the wrong direction?
No, because I have a way of explaining Ridley’s evil. She grew up in a family where she was less special than Lena. Like you said, the family didn’t try to save Ridley when she went Dark but sent her away to go change and live by herself. They cast her out in a sense and that made her very angry. And when she realised she had all this power, she tried to be special by using it even though it was Dark. Her hunger to be special overcomes any desire to try to retain her goodness.
You and I might consider her a victim, but does she consider herself a victim?
She’s definitely very angry and very childish in her actions, and so that’s a counterpoint to the malice and the chaos that she creates.
Do you think Ridley gave into her destiny, rather than fight it as Lena does?
She was not as powerful as Lena, so I don’t think she could fight her fate and be someone other than who she is now. She didn’t have the strength of character that Lena does. She didn’t have the strong family upbringing, she wasn’t focused on as much as Lena has been, nor nurtured as much. I think she’s just a little bit more damaged.
Was she a hard role to play?
She’s a fun role to play. I don’t think about hard and easy, I think about just putting my head down – how do I do this?
In the book, she doesn't show up for about 160-something pages, and then she’s only in about four or five scenes. You’re top-billed, so what’s changed for the movie?
Ridley’s more of a central character because she was such a favourite of fans who read the book. She’s just so noisy and in-your-face in the movie that you can’t help but want to feature her. She shows up proportionately at about the same time she does in the book.
What plans do you have for your acting career?
Just creating different characters, having fun, challenging myself, doing stuff I haven’t done before. I’ve always thought that if I felt the artistic compulsion to do something, like make a record or play a part, that means it’s something I should pursue. If I don’t feel that kind of hunger or fire, then it’s not something that should organically happen.
Beautiful Creatures is released February 21, 2013. For more on the film, check out our interview with the director here and leading man Alden Ehrenreich here.